The hockey season officially started in Minnesota last weekend with the beginning of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League, a fall league made up of the best high school players in the state of Minnesota, and surrounding areas.
I got my first look at the league, taking in the early games on Saturday morning, and then the match-up on Tuesday night. In all. I've yet to see North or Great Plains play, but I figured I'd give some early thoughts on the other five teams in the league that I've see play.
Overall, I was a bit more impressed with the pace of play than I have been in the previous few seasons. This year's group of seniors, largely made up '97 birthdates, didn't have as much elite talent, but was a much deeper group. So while the top few players left to play junior hockey, there's still a pretty solid group that has remained behind to play high school. The defense has been a little rough in the early going, but a lot of goals being scored are coming off skill plays rather than broken plays and scrambles.
Here's a look at some of the early individual standouts in the league:
This should be one of the top teams in the league, at least until Shattuck-St. Mary's joins in. They've got four legitimate NHL Draft prospects on their blueline in Jack Sadek(Minnesota), Jack McNeely(Nebraska-Omaha), Jacob Olson(Michigan Tech), and Colin Gallagher, and two very good, but smaller defensemen in Jack Ahcan and Brady Schoo.
Of the Draft prospects, Gallagher has really developed in the past nine or so months. He's always had the size and physical ability to be a next level player, but his hockey sense was so far behind that it looked like he'd never reach that potential. He held his own against the high speed of Elite League play though, playing a pretty simple, safe game. He at least merits further watching as far as the draft goes. Jacob Olson isn't the best skater out of the group, but probably competes the hardest. Sadek is the best athlete, but was a little too passive on Tuesday night. McNeely is a really strong kid and probably the best defender of the group. All four played solid enough that they'll be looked at seriously as Draft prospects, but none really took over the game and stood out as a player projected to go early in the draft.
The forwards overall aren't as strong for Southeast, but their line of Casey Mittelstadt-Odeen Tufto-Nick Swaney(Minnesota Duluth) was hands-down the best in the league. Swaney's hockey sense, Tufto's quickness, and Mittelstadt's shooting ability give that line an incredible chemistry. Tufto might be a good darkhorse pick for the Mr. Hockey finalist list this year.
Like Southeast, very strong on the blue line and average at forward. Minnetonka senior John Schuldt has been impressive early. He's a huge kid and while he's not overly mobile, he thinks the game very well. He belongs in the same category as McNeely, Sadek, Olson, and Gallagher as potential late round NHL Draft picks.
Matt Denman has really improved over the last six months or so, and fellow '98 D Casey Staum is still a great puckmover. Both are likely on college radars. The most impressive D on the team, however, is Matt Anderson(Minnesota Duluth). Despite being a '99 birthdate, he looks like the smartest, most mature player out there.
At forward, Dylan Malmquist(Notre Dame) is one of the favorite's to win Mr. Hockey this year. This is a tough spot for Malmquist because after going undrafted last year, there's really nothing he can do against high school competition that would be that impressive at this point. He really struggled on Saturday. Body language was very poor and he eventually got tossed out of the game. Tuesday was much better. He got a friendly bounce for a goal early, and Notre Dame had a coach there watching him, which I think helped.
Garrett Wait(Minnesota) was very good, as always. John Peterson and Kevin Fellows are two uncommitted players to keep an eye on.
No real NHL Draft prospects on this team, but some very good talent, especially from the younger ages. Defenseman Seamus Donohue(Air Force) looked very good. It was good to see Griff Slightam back on the ice after missing all of last year with an injury. He had a bit of a slow start, as is to be expected, but should be very good by the end of the Elite League season.
Wayzata's Mark Senden and Hank Sorensen are two really hard-nosed hockey players. Both are '98s and will more than likely be making college decisions sometime this year.
This team put up some crazy offensive numbers in their first weekend of play, with 29 goals in three games. Three games into the season and fourteen different players have a goal, with Jacob Jaremko, Reggie Lutz, and Josh Passolt all with four or more. Jaremko looks like he's added some size, and if he continues scoring at that pace, will definitely start to draw more attention.
Matt Kiersted(North Dakota) really facilitated the offense from the blue line. He's starting to add a little more muscle and becoming a more powerful skater, which gives his game an extra element. Chase Ellingson is a creative player who was consistently dangerous the offensive zone on Saturday morning. Tyler Vold is a defenseman that has really improved over the past year, and Ben Meyers is another player in the deep '98 birth year that will likely make a college commitment this year.
They got blown out on Saturday morning(though they lost 9-3, they were the only team to hold Northwest to single digits, I guess) although it didn't feel like they got beaten as badly as they did. A good percentage of this team played last year on the Team Wisconsin U16 team that won the Tier I national title, so this looks like one of TW's better teams.
Defenseman Adam Parsells(Wisconsin) is a legit 6'4" which should put him on the NHL Draft radar. He's still growing into his body a little bit, but has a ton of upside. I was always very impressed with forward Collin Peters(Northern MIchigan), he's a strong kid that skates hard and hits hard. Long-term, I don't see him as much of a scorer, but he's the definition of playing heavy hockey. Ty Pelton-Byce(UMass) continues to fill out and should be the top scoring threat on this year's team.